Selina Miles: Subway Art, Photography and Martha Cooper

November 27, 2019
Australian filmmaker Selina Miles has made the documentary Martha: A Picture Story about the photographer behind the seminal book, Subway Art.

Martha Cooper grew up surrounded by cameras and badly wanted to become a photographer. Credited for changing visual culture, she was shooting the graffiti scene in New York when it was still an undercover art movement and taggers simply called themselves ‘writers’.

She was the first female photographer at the New York Post and the first female intern at National Geographic. Her book Subway Art (with Henry Chalfant) is known by street artists as ‘the bible’. Yet despite the credits to her name, Martha is not widely known outside of the street art world. Martha is now 75 years of age and Australian filmmaker Selina Miles decided it was time to tell this woman’s story.

Miles’s documentary Martha: A Picture Story gives voice to the silent woman behind the camera, who over the last five decades has captured underground cultural moments. Through her lens, we are privy to graffiti and street art that would otherwise be lost; to artistic expression via Japanese tattooing; the forgotten homes of the Puerto Rican communities; and simple times of children at ‘street play’.

Martha Cooper in Alphabet City 1978, photo by Dan Brinzac

A self-taught filmmaker, Martha is Selina Miles’s debut feature film. Initially, Martha’s story was part of a ten-minute short profiling artists, however, a trip to the photographer’s home in New York unearthed an amazing wealth of artefacts in her studio, and a seemingly never-ending list of interesting people to interview.

Miles’s previous work includes art doco The Wanderers, which screened on ABC iview, and street art video ‘Limitless’. While Miles and Cooper share a strong interest in the subject matter of street art, she says Martha is truly unique. “I don’t expect that many others will have such a lasting and impactful legacy on arts and culture in this century or will have the voracity and passion to continue their career into their seventies as she has done,” says Miles.

Due to “Marty’s” respect by street artists globally, some of the biggest names in the street art world feature in the documentary, such as Shepard Fairey (famous for the Obama ‘Hope’ poster), Brazilian artists OSGEMEOS and the 1UP crew (an enigmatic group of graffiti artists based in Berlin).

The 90-minute documentary is successfully told through interviews, documentary footage and personal photos. Shot almost entirely on 35mm (by Michael Latham), Miles says the cinematography is deliberately no-nonsense and direct.

Inspired by Martha’s direct and literal approach to her photography, Miles sought to reflect the personality and style of the artist in the filmmaking.

Selina Miles

“I learned to treat every day of shooting like it could be ‘the one’ that makes it all work and shoot as much and as often as I could because you never know what might be needed later.”

Martha was vying for female empowerment way before the ‘MeToo’ era, forging for a professional life for women in the 1970s. In the film, she shares her frustrations of photographing Olympic athletes for the New York Post and being told to focus on capturing the female athletes’ cleavage.

These stories were ‘gold’ for Miles. “I love that we were able to include a small insight into the wonderfully irreverent sense of humour that Martha and many of her female friends from that generation have about gender issues. I think if you have survived the 1970s in publishing in New York, you have to know how to laugh things off. Martha’s personal brand of feminism is one that I respect and align with.”

Miles gave that same support to female filmmakers on the documentary by employing a largely (60%) female crew.

“It was not a particularly conscious decision, although I’d be naive to say that gender bias does not exist. We were fortunate to be connected with a lot of wonderful crew who happened to be female. Maybe they were drawn to the project because of the subject matter or maybe we were on each other’s radar having connected through programs such as Free the Bid or Screen Australia’s Gender Matters initiative. We were happy to have contributed to addressing the gender inequality that has previously been such a big issue for the film industry. I think there’s a shift happening, and it’s an exciting time for new voices and stories to be heard.”

Trailblazing a path for women, Martha also proves age is no barrier. The photographer is still devoted to her craft and shooting today.

Miles reflects: “Martha has shown me what true passion looks like. What finding your true self and throwing yourself into living that truth wholeheartedly and unapologetically looks like. I hope that audiences get the same inspiration from their time with her on screen.”

Martha: A Picture Story is in cinemas November 28, 2019 

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